It was 11 years ago today (April 17th, 2008) that the E Street Band's co-founding organist Danny Federici died at age 58 at New York City's Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, following a three-year battle with melanoma. Federici, who was nicknamed “Phantom” due to a comical scuffle with the law during a 1970 riot at a Bruce Springsteen show, had been playing with Springsteen since 1969 — longer than any other musician in the E Street Band.
Federici backed Springsteen in such pre-fame bands as Child, Steel Mill, the Bruce Springsteen Band, and Dr. Zoom & The Sonic Boom. Federici's organ, accordion, and glockenspiel work were hallmarks of Springsteen's sound, evoking the heart and soul of the New Jersey shore and the characters from the central Jersey scene whom Springsteen chronicled in his early works. In 1999, Springsteen saluted Federici during his acceptance speech to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, saying, “Danny Federici, the most instinctive and natural musician I ever met and the only member of the band who can reduce me to a shouting mess. I love you Danny. Your organ and accordion playing brought the boardwalks of Central and South Jersey alive in my music. Thank you.”
Springsteen had announced on November 21st, 2007 that Federici would be sitting out the then-upcoming leg of his European dates to take time off to receive cancer treatment. Federici's last full E Street Band concert took place in Boston on November 19th, on the last night of the first leg of their tour. Word of Federici's long-rumored fragile health spread quickly after the show, at which Federici was unusually spotlighted numerous times during the concert and the curtain calls.
Federici made a surprise appearance with the band less than a month before his death during Springsteen's March 20th, 2008 concert in Indianapolis, where he joined the band for selected numbers in the show, including “The Promised Land,” “Spirit In The Night,” and “Fourth Of July, Asbury Park (Sandy),” which featured Federici on his first instrument, the accordion. Federici also appeared for the encores, including “Backstreets,” “Kitty's Back,” “Born To Run,” “Dancing In The Dark,” and “American Land,” which featured he and E Street pianist Roy Bittan on dual accordions. Charlie Giordano of Springsteen's side project the Seeger Sessions Band, was named as Federici's permanent replacement.
In 2018, Springsteen selected the final show to feature Federici as one of his monthly vault releases — Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band – TD Banknorth Garden – Boston 11/19/07. Federici's March 20th, 2008 rendition of “4th Of July, Asbury Park (Sandy),” was included on the 2008 EP, Magic Tour Highlights.
Shortly before his death in 2008, E Street Band co-founder and organist Danny Federici — who had played with “The Boss” the longest — explained that Springsteen was nothing if not his own man: “Bruce is Bruce. He does what he wants, when he wants it, and he changes his mind all the time.”
Steve Van Zandt explained that Federici was literally there long before the E Street big bang: “Danny is one of the original guys from our local. . . we had a little scene where we all ended up hanging out in Asbury Park, called the Upstage Club, and y'know, Danny goes back all the way there with me, and Bruce, and Garry Tallent, also.”
Fellow E Street Band co-founder and keyboardist David Sancious admitted to us that Federici's death hit him hard: “When Danny passed away I was on tour in Italy and I couldn't attend the funeral and I was able to send a message and condolences to his wife. It's tough, y'know, it arrests your attention. You realize — if you didn't realize it already — when your friends start to pass away, it arrests your attention to that sense of mortality.”
Clarence Clemons, who stood in front of Federici night after night after night, explained shortly before his own 2011 death, how tied together his and Federici's lives were: “Danny was like my son. Danny did everything first, including dying. The first time I had any kind of drug. . . relationship was with Danny, and the first time I did anything that's crazy, I did it with Danny. We had a little thing going that we used to do in between songs. I miss him so much. But, man, when Danny was there it was. . . it was something different, y'know? It was something different.”
During the E Street Band's 2014 Rock Hall induction, Bruce Springsteen spoke candidly about the ties that bound him and his bandmates: “It was a band. We struggled together and sometimes we struggled with one another. We bathed in the glory and often the heartbreaking confusion of our rewards together. We enjoyed health and we've suffered illness, and aging, and death together. We took care of one another when trouble knocked, and we hurt one another in big and small ways. But in the end, we kept faith with each other. And one thing is for certain. I told a story with the E Street Band that was — and is — bigger than I ever could've told on my own.”
Back in February, as part of his ongoing live archive series, Bruce Springsteen released the E Street Band's first show following Danny Federici's death and funeral. The set, titled St. Pete Times Forum – Tampa, FL – April 22nd, 2008, opens with the audio of the celebratory film chronicling “Phantom's” life with Springsteen, before a heart-wrenching rendition of “Backstreets,” along with the tour premiere of “Growin' Up,” a one-off performance of the gospel standard, “I’ll Fly Away,” and a take of Federici's signature tune with the band, “4th Of July, Asbury Park (Sandy),” featuring Roy Bittan filling in for his fallen E Street partner.